A Brief History of Afternoon Tea
Mar 2, 2021
Many of us are familiar with the delight of traditional afternoon tea. You may have participated in this tradition at a hotel or a quaint tearoom, or at home with friends.
Traditional afternoon tea fare typically consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and jam or preserves, and a selection of small cakes or pastries, all beautifully displayed on a tiered stand. And one cannot forget the tea, of course! Black tea with milk and sugar is the traditional tea of choice, served in delicate china teacups. However, many tea rooms nowadays offer a wide selection of teas, from black and oolong to pu’erh, green, and herbal teas, so the choice is yours!
How the Tradition of Afternoon Tea Began
Although tea has been consumed in England since the 1600s, afternoon tea is actually a relatively new tradition. It began in 1840 with Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford. Anna was a close friend of Queen Victoria and one of her ladies-in-waiting. Anna also served as Queen Victoria’s “Lady of the Bedchamber,” which was the official title for the Queen’s personal attendant, for several years.
During the 1800s, the evening meal was typically served around eight o’clock in the evening. This left a long period of time before dinner, and the Duchess of Bedford found that she was always hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. She began to ask that a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake be brought to her at that time. This became a habit, and she began asking friends to join her in her rooms at Woburn Abbey, where she often resided in the summer, for this afternoon meal. When she returned to London, she began sending cards to her friends to join her for tea in the afternoon. The tradition of afternoon tea was born!
Afternoon tea soon became a fashionable event for members of the upper class. It was served in special tea rooms and at grand hotels, as well as at home. When going out for afternoon tea, women would dress up in special gowns, gloves, and hats. Afternoon tea was an event ladies often attended to “see and to be seen” by members of high society.
Afternoon Tea Influenced Fashion Through the Development of the “Tea Gown.”
Tea gowns were looser dresses that were worn without a corset and could be donned without the help of a maid. The fabric was also lighter in weight than those used for the heavy gowns of the day. Tea gowns were typically worn at home for afternoon tea served in the drawing room. Later, tea gowns began to gain popularity outside of the home. By the Edwardian era, they were often worn as a part of daily life. Who would have thought that tea would lead to the end of the corset?
High Tea and Low Tea
You may have also heard of “low tea” and “high tea.” What’s the difference? Low tea is simply another term for afternoon tea, which was served at low tables, such as those found in a drawing room or sitting room. High tea was a practice that originated with the working classes. Since they didn’t have the luxury of an afternoon tea break, the working classes would take their tea immediately after work instead. This was typically around five or six o’clock in the evening. The meal included heartier fare, such as meats, pies, and cheeses. The name “high tea” is thought to have come from the fact that this meal was served at a proper dinner table, rather than a low sofa or settee, as would have been done in the drawing rooms of the upper classes.
As society and traditions changed, the practice of afternoon tea began to fall out of fashion. Fast-paced coffee houses eventually became the norm. However, the 1990s saw a resurgence of interest in both high-quality teas and the tradition of afternoon tea. One can now participate in this tradition in many hotels, department stores, and cafés across Britain, as well as elsewhere in the world. Although it is no longer a daily tradition, afternoon tea is still a pleasure to take part in, and a wonderful treat to share with your family or friends!
Afternoon Tea Recipe Ideas
Cucumber Sandwiches (serves 6) – adapted from The Perfect Afternoon Tea Recipe Book by Antony Wild and Carol Pastor
- 1 cucumber
- 12 slices white bread
- Butter or cream cheese at room temperature, for spreading (butter is traditional, but I prefer cream cheese!)
Peel the cucumber (if desired) and slice into thin slices. Place the cucumber slices into a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 20 minutes.
Trim the crusts from the bread. Butter the bread (or spread cream cheese) on one side of 6 slices. Arrange the cucumber over the butter or cream cheese, sprinkle with pepper, and top with the remaining bread. Cut into fingers or triangles.
Cream Tea Scones (makes 12) adapted from King Arthur Flour
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ to 1/3 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling scones
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/3 to 1 ½ cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing scones
Preheat the oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.
Combine the vanilla with the 1 1/3 cups heavy cream, and drizzle the mixture over the dry ingredients, gently stirring the dry ingredients as you go. Add enough cream to form a cohesive dough – you can add up to 3 additional tablespoons of cream if necessary.
Lightly flour your work surface. Divide the dough in half, and gently pat each half into a circle about 5 ½ inches in diameter and ¾ inch in thickness.
Brush each dough circle with a little extra cream, and sprinkle with sugar. Place the two circles of dough on the baking sheet and cut each circle into 6 wedges. Pull the wedges slightly apart from each other, leaving about 1 inch of space between them.
Place the pan of scones into the freezer for about 15 minutes. This will help them rise better. Then remove the scones from the freezer and bake them for 14-15 minutes, until they are just starting to brown and are baked all the way through. Serve the scones warm, split and spread with butter and jam. Enjoy!